Notes on the Political Over the Longue Durée


“Pol­i­tics” dis­tin­guishes itself from the “polit­i­cal,” which has as a char­ac­ter­is­tic that of con­tem­plat­ing, alongside the state, other hold­ers [tito­lari], other sub­jects of polit­i­cal real­ityHere then is a his­tory of these sub­jects that is  any­thing but over.
— Mario Tronti1

Writ­ten towards the end of what we might call the “sec­ond period” of Tronti’s reflec­tions, that of the so-called “auton­omy of the Polit­i­cal,” sand­wiched between the more famous phase of Operaismo and the – almost com­pletely unknown to the Anglo­phone world – “third period” polit­i­cal the­o­log­i­cal phase, that of the twi­light [tra­monto] of the polit­i­cal, the short text trans­lated here will come to many Anglo­phone read­ers of Tronti as a sur­prise. The hereti­cal Marx­ist, the author of Work­ers and Cap­i­tal who ana­lyzed the devel­op­ment and dynam­ics of the “mass worker” and argued that the work­ing class was the dynamic ele­ment of cap­i­tal­ism – within and against – but always shift­ing cap­i­tal on (every inno­va­tion a failed rev­o­lu­tion), and that the polit­i­cal form of cap­i­tal was deter­mined by the inten­sity and form of the strug­gle, now shifts the the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work onto another, much more his­tor­i­cal level: the longue durée of the cap­i­tal­ist state from the 16th cen­tury.

In the first phase of his work, Tronti con­fronted the the­o­ret­i­cal and polit­i­cal prob­lems that stemmed from the dynam­ics of indus­trial cap­i­tal spread­ing at break­neck speed through­out the Ital­ian penin­sula in the 1950s and ‘60s, neo-cap­i­tal­ism (as it was known at the time), alongside the mas­sive exten­sion and con­cen­tra­tion of the work­ing class in terms of con­di­tion and uni­fi­ca­tion of desire – and of the need to orga­nize this spon­tane­ity. In the sec­ond phase, the inter­na­tional cri­sis of cap­i­tal in the late-‘60s and ‘70s revived, for Tronti and oth­ers, ques­tions of past cap­i­tal­ist responses to eco­nomic and polit­i­cal cri­sis, bring­ing the state into relief. As Tronti argues in a num­ber of texts through­out the 1970s, with the cri­sis of cap­i­tal of 1929, with the “Great Trans­for­ma­tion” dis­cussed so insight­fully by Karl Polanyi, cap­i­tal­ism would never be the same again. The role of the state, of pol­i­tics – of bour­geois pol­i­tics – would be that of sta­bi­liza­tion. So, whereas cap­i­tal­ism is cri­sis, as so many have argued since Marx’s day, the state is order.2 It is this con­junc­ture – cap­i­tal­ism and state, cri­sis and order – that becomes the focus of Tronti’s thought from this period, dri­ven by the con­crete shifts on the ground that con­fronted the work­ing class and its orga­ni­za­tions. In the rest of this brief intro­duc­tion, I shall try to out­line the rea­sons for this shift.


The “very gist, the liv­ing soul, of Marx­ism – a con­crete analy­sis of a con­crete sit­u­a­tion”3; so why, pre­cisely at this time – that of the cri­sis of the inter­na­tional cap­i­tal of the 1970s – does Tronti decide that this “con­crete sit­u­a­tion” can best be ana­lyzed through a study of the devel­op­ment of the “polit­i­cal” and of the bour­geois state (which are by no means syn­ony­mous, as we shall see) since the 16th cen­tury? Why is this the period in which Tronti decided to com­pose his first and only mono­graph, on Hegel of all peo­ple (Hegel Politico, 1975), an edited vol­ume on the Eng­lish Civil War (Stato e Riv­o­luzione in Inghilterra, 1977),4 and a sub­se­quent four-vol­ume edited anthol­ogy, of excerpts and crit­i­cal essays on the lead­ing bour­geois the­o­rists from 1500-1800 (Il Politico, 1979-1982 – from which the trans­la­tion below is drawn)? It should be noted, first of all, that this is by no means all that he worked on dur­ing this period – he con­tin­ued to write on cur­rent affairs, such as the rela­tion­ship that the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party (PCI) should main­tain with extra-par­lia­men­tary move­ments and par­ties, the role of the Chris­tian Demo­c­ra­tic Party (DC) in the state-sys­tem, as well as more gen­eral arti­cles on the nature of the polit­i­cal,5 and stud­ies of more recent phases of cap­i­tal­ist restruc­tur­ing such as the New Deal and Weimar.6 Alongside the impor­tant stud­ies of the con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion, he also sat on the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party dur­ing the period of the “His­toric Com­pro­mise.” Hence, although his work was not restricted to the study of the early his­tory of the bour­geois state, it is clear that dur­ing this period, from the mid-1970s till the early ‘80s, much of Tronti’s the­o­ret­i­cal work was focused upon the bour­geois state since the 16th cen­tury, and that this deci­sion he saw as essen­tial to renew­ing the the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal tools of the work­ers’ move­ment and its party. Why? What was the ques­tion to which this course of study was to provide an answer, the prob­lem to which this would be a solu­tion? And what of these prob­lems, these ques­tions, is alive today after – or within – the Great Reces­sion?

One path towards an answer would lead us through the fraught ter­ri­tory of the “auton­omy of the polit­i­cal,” the infa­mous term first dis­cussed in a lec­ture in 1972 (pub­lished only five years later), and that sparked Tronti’s inves­ti­ga­tions into the longue durée of the state. Whereas the “auton­omy” traced here was devel­oped through an analy­sis of the struc­ture and func­tion of the state fol­low­ing the Great Crash (but also the trans­for­ma­tion of the Soviet State under Lenin was a per­sis­tent ref­er­ence point), we will see that this proved to be just the first step towards a longer analy­sis of the polit­i­cal in which the bour­geois state – as the­o­rized by Hegel and return­ing to the fore in the 1930s – was sim­ply the high­est or lat­est incar­na­tion of the polit­i­cal.7

Let us begin, then, by briefly out­lin­ing the – fre­quently mis­un­der­stood – prob­lem that Tronti encoun­tered in this period. Doing so will help us under­stand why the his­tory of the bour­geois state, from its ori­gins in the 16th cen­tury, becomes so impor­tant for Tronti at this speci­fic his­tor­i­cal moment; it will also serve to cor­rect some of the mis­un­der­stand­ings that have bedev­illed many sub­se­quent inter­pre­ta­tions, stand­ing in the way of an ade­quate the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of the ques­tion of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal.


The first thing to note is that the series of reflec­tions that would con­verge on the idea of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal, did not come fully formed and, arguably, never did find a defin­i­tive for­mu­la­tion.8 The auton­omy of the polit­i­cal can be best described as a field of forces, of unre­solved ten­sions that cir­cum­scribe a prob­lem­atic the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal space that stems from a con­crete con­junc­tural intu­ition: that once cap­i­tal­ism ceases to be a pro­gres­sive force, i.e. when it ceases to be able to inte­grate the work­ing class through a reformist moment of wage increases and height­ened con­sump­tion (as dur­ing the so-called Fordist-com­pro­mise), the com­mand of the state by bour­geois par­ties per­mits the strate­gic use of cri­sis – most notably under Thatcher and Rea­gan – to restruc­ture the work­ing class, frag­ment­ing and iso­lat­ing it geo­graph­i­cally, sec­to­ri­ally or within the space of pro­duc­tion, thereby per­mit­ting the process of the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal to be re-estab­lished on a new and more advanced ter­rain of inte­gra­tion.9 This intu­ition of the active role of the state in the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­would be devel­oped fur­ther, in a series of analy­ses of the rela­tion between eco­nomic cri­sis and the polit­i­cal to an inves­ti­ga­tion into the his­tory of the bour­geois state since the Great Depres­sion.

The auton­omy of the polit­i­cal iden­ti­fies a phe­nom­e­non of the Great Trans­for­ma­tion. It accounts for how the bour­geoisie, con­fronted with eco­nomic cri­sis, used the state to restruc­ture soci­ety from above, in tandem with cap­i­tal. This is a neces­sity dri­ven by cri­sis and by the com­bined and uneven devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal and of its state, of the mech­a­nisms of the state, some­times in advance (as dur­ing the New Deal), more often retarded with respect to cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment (as in the Italy of the 1960s-‘70s); of the dif­fer­ent artic­u­la­tions of frac­tions of cap­i­tal with one another; and of cap­i­tal and its state in rela­tion to the level of devel­op­ment of its great antag­o­nist, the work­ing class. The ques­tion of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal is the ques­tion of the mech­a­nisms at the dis­posal of cap­i­tal10 to medi­ate between, to man­age and to coor­di­nate its frag­ments, its advances and delays, and its antag­o­nist – a func­tion that is ini­tially called upon when the mech­a­nism of devel­op­ment breaks down. The ques­tion to which the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal is an answer, is not only  – as so many left crit­ics have described it, and despite evi­dent ambi­gu­i­ties and rhetor­i­cal excesses11 – that of the proper rela­tion of the Party to the class or to the state, or – for that mat­ter – of the class to the state (although it is also this). The prob­lem is not merely that of the cor­rect form of polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion; the prob­lem is also how to count polit­i­cally within the bour­geois state.12 More specif­i­cally, the real­ity of the 1970s posed a prob­lem with two com­po­nent parts: given the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal – “a fact of cap­i­tal … I repeat, so that peo­ple stop pre­tend­ing not to under­stand”13 – how can the work­ers’ move­ment make use of this auton­omy in order to inter­vene at the level of the state?

In order to clar­ify what we mean by this prob­lem with two ele­ments, we can per­haps think of it in anal­ogy with the New Eco­nomic Pol­icy. With the Soviet Union com­ing out of rev­o­lu­tion and civil war, the ques­tion for Lenin was one of rebuild­ing the econ­omy and even rebuild­ing the class sub­ject of the rev­o­lu­tion, the work­ing class, dec­i­mated by vio­lent con­flict and indus­trial col­lapse. The NEP was, as Lenin him­self con­ceded, a step back, a “strate­gi­cal retreat”;14 it was the con­scious use of cap­i­tal­ist tools – pri­vate own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion – for social­ist pur­poses. Cap­i­tal­ism was to be let back in, was to be allowed to grow and, in grow­ing, strengthen, but in so doing it would also rebuild the pro­le­tariat that had been “declassed” by the pre­vi­ous period of eco­nomic defeat and polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary con­flict, and rebuild the pro­duc­tive forces – but this time, it would do so to defend the rev­o­lu­tion. The ques­tion was: “who will take the lead?” Reread­ing the Lenin of these years alongside Tronti, the sim­i­lar­i­ties in tone and form are extra­or­di­nary:

The whole ques­tion is who will take the lead. We must face this issue squarely – who will come out on top? Either the cap­i­tal­ists suc­ceed in orga­niz­ing first – in which case they will drive out the Com­mu­nists and that will be the end of it. Or the pro­le­tar­ian state power, with the sup­port of the peas­antry, will prove capa­ble of keep­ing a proper rein on those gen­tle­men, the cap­i­tal­ists, so as to direct cap­i­tal­ism along state chan­nels and to cre­ate a cap­i­tal­ism that will be sub­or­di­nate to the state and serve the state. (Lenin15)

[We must] elab­o­rate a medium term strat­egy, that is, to get to the point of being able to lead the process of adjust­ment of the state machine to the pro­duc­tive machine of cap­i­tal… it is a case of going so far as to con­sciously take hold of the process of mod­ern­iza­tion of the state machin­ery, to even man­age not the reforms in gen­eral, as one says in the usual jar­gon, but in par­tic­u­lar that speci­fic reform that is the cap­i­tal­ist reform of the state. (Tronti16)

We can speak, only half in jest, of a New Polit­i­cal Pol­icy, the use of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal, that emi­nently bour­geois inven­tion brought in most recently to save cap­i­tal from its cri­sis (in the ‘20s and ‘30s), in order to advance the work­ers’ move­ment. This is the prob­lem and the chal­lenge that Tronti tries to develop in this period.

I do not want to make too much of this anal­ogy,17 but I think it is use­ful when try­ing to make sense of the prob­lem and the task Tronti set him­self at this time. It was not, there­fore, to provide a new, even if hereti­cal Marx­ist the­ory of the state – the lack of which was a wide­spread topic of dis­cus­sion at this time – that Tronti devel­oped the notion of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal. Instead, this notion served both to make sense of the speci­fic prac­tice of the cap­i­tal­ist state after the Great Trans­for­ma­tion and was a call to a prag­matic engage­ment with those tools in order to bend them to dif­fer­ent ends. The auton­omy of the polit­i­cal is the sub­jec­tive stance of the bour­geois state, used to fur­ther its inter­ests; Tronti demanded that it should be appro­pri­ated by the work­ing class and bent to its inter­ests. So it is not a ques­tion of a new Marx­ist The­ory of the State, which had been lack­ing (although that too); but, cru­cially, a Marx­ist Prac­tice of the State is what was called for. Only a thor­ough under­stand­ing of the machin­ery of state and of the polit­i­cal could enable one to effec­tively oper­ate it – but a call for an “art of pol­i­tics, that is, of par­tic­u­lar tech­niques for the con­quest and con­ser­va­tion of power,”18 was by no means a ‘“politi­cist-abstract” depar­ture from the more “polit­i­cal-con­junc­tural” focus of the mil­i­tant inter­ven­tions of the 1960s’ – as the par­al­lel with the NEP makes plain.19 In the final text in the book L’Autonomia del Politico, Tronti writes:

I am struck  (given that we are speak­ing of the sub­jec­tiv­ity of the State, [i.e.] of cap­i­tal­ist inter­ests) that to some it has appeared that the prop­erly sub­jec­tive moment, in par­tic­u­lar, that of the work­ing class had dis­ap­peared from my dis­cus­sion. We must cer­tainly cor­rect this impres­sion: in the back­ground of this argu­ment, there is a care­fully hid­den inter­locu­tor who pulls all the strings of the mat­ter… It is true: every move­ment in the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal and power has a class rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal and its antag­o­nist at its origin …20

He goes on to argue with respect to the change in the state-form in the 1930s, much in the same way as does Anto­nio Negri21 – one of the most fierce adver­saries of the notion of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal – that one can­not under­stand the par­tic­u­lar solu­tion given to the Great Crash with­out the rup­ture of 1917. That solu­tion – as Tronti argues – is that which leads to the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal, of the state as agent called to com­pen­sate for the fail­ures of cap­i­tal, to try to sta­bi­lize, re-start, re-model devel­op­ment, and redi­rect­ing invest­ment between more or less advanced indus­trial sec­tors – in short, to medi­ate, recom­pose, decide and to organ­ise the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of the class com­pro­mise that alone could save cap­i­tal­ism from itself and from its great antag­o­nist. For anal­o­gous rea­sons, we can say that Lenin – as well as Roo­sevelt (in the New Deal) and Key­nes – could be said to have under­stood the his­tor­i­cal neces­sity for the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal for the re-estab­lish­ment of order on a new foot­ing. It is here that we encoun­ter the speci­ficity of the polit­i­cal: the polit­i­cal in its auton­omy is a the­ory of the repro­duc­tion of order after cri­sis and a the­ory of the means to inter­vene in the process of the repro­duc­tion of order. Both of these oper­a­tions come under the head­ing of the “polit­i­cal,” with­out being reducible to it.22For this rea­son, Tronti priv­i­leges bour­geois the­o­rists (includ­ing social demo­c­ra­tic ones) who devel­oped a the­ory and prac­tice of the state to guide the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal, in the same way that Lenin turned to “bour­geois spe­cial­ists” to run the machin­ery of state and large-scale indus­try; and it is for this same rea­son that Marx, who was faced with a lib­eral state, ceases to be a the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal ref­er­ence point for think­ing the new polit­i­cal mech­a­nisms for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal.23 The auton­omy of the polit­i­cal in the bour­geois state is pre­cisely “in order to be able to inter­vene” in the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism after its cri­sis, to re-estab­lish con­di­tions of devel­op­ment and exploita­tion. Tronti argued that the mech­a­nisms of its auton­omy should instead be grasped by the orga­ni­za­tion of the work­ing class, “in order to be able to inter­vene” in the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal, after its cri­sis, to estab­lish con­di­tions for a “new idea of the state,” because “one can­not intro­duce new masses into an old state.”24 There is no easy way to do this, no easy del­e­ga­tion – whether to party or to class for that mat­ter; each con­crete sit­u­a­tion calls for a con­crete analy­sis and the flex­i­bil­ity to act on the basis of the results of that analy­sis. The analy­sis always starts from the rela­tions of class forces that deter­mi­nes the rel­a­tive strength of the con­tenders and, hence, cir­cum­scribes the level of auton­omy of action. An addi­tional level of auton­omy may be given by the rela­tion to the state, to the polit­i­cal form of repro­duc­tion. The ques­tion is not whether or not the polit­i­cal oper­ates inde­pen­dently of, autonomously from mate­rial con­di­tions – it does not; the char­ac­ter and qual­ity of that auton­omy is gov­erned, cir­cum­scribed by very con­crete mate­rial con­di­tions. For exam­ple, we have already indi­cated how, though a “great trans­for­ma­tion,” the state became a renewed prin­ci­ple of order emerg­ing from a very con­crete cri­sis of repro­duc­tion. It did so by repro­duc­ing the class rela­tion through, firstly, a class com­pro­mise between the two great con­tend­ing classes the rel­a­tive strength of which would cir­cum­scribe the rel­a­tive lev­els of auton­omy (in the New Deal / Fordist com­pro­mise) and, later, through a care­ful deploy­ment of cri­sis, one that re-estab­lished the con­di­tions of growth through the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of rel­a­tive and absolute sur­plus value (shift to float­ing exchange rates / end of dol­lar con­vert­ibil­ity, oil shocks, Volker shock, war on orga­nized labour, etc.). The ques­tion for Tronti was: what are the con­di­tions for achiev­ing a level of auton­omy, in prac­tice, that can be exer­cised in order to inter­vene within the repro­duc­tion of class rela­tions in a form more favor­able to the work­ing class. His answer was that it was nec­es­sary to under­stand and to appro­pri­ate the bour­geois mech­a­nisms of auton­omy exper­i­mented in the course of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury.25


To return, then, to our start­ing point. Why did Tronti feel the need to spend much of the 1970s, at the same time as that he was argu­ing for the appro­pri­a­tion – in the­ory and prac­tice – of the bour­geois auton­omy of the Polit­i­cal, i.e. of the mech­a­nisms for the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal­ism, by the work­ers’ move­ment, car­ry­ing out an analy­sis of the polit­i­cal over the longue durée?

The hypoth­e­sis is that pre­cisely with the 1930s the return of the polit­i­cal, call it what you will, of the auton­omy, of the pri­macy, of the antic­i­pa­tion of the polit­i­cal, the open­ing – that is – of a new clas­si­cal phase of pol­i­tics is accom­pa­nied by a his­tory of the State on the grand scale [in grande], where the ori­gins of mod­ern bour­geois power – unity and con­cen­tra­tion, sov­er­eignty and vio­lence, the machine and the prince – are once again deci­sive. Nat­u­rally there are great changes: new paths, ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tuses, grand solu­tions to mass orga­ni­za­tion, and the planned con­trol of eco­nomic con­tra­dic­tions. But in this phase I would like to under­line and hold to the com­mon ground of cor­re­spon­dences and echoes [richi­ami] between the two peri­ods, that of the ori­gins and that of the great cri­sis, between the long process of the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism and the epoch of the “great trans­for­ma­tion.” From here stems the almost oblig­at­ory choice of clas­si­cal polit­i­cal thought, in the six­teenth and sev­en­teenth cen­turies, as the ter­rain of study of liv­ing prob­lems and the encoun­ter with the model of polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion, as the inter­sec­tion of con­di­tions for the pas­sage to cap­i­tal­ism. At the same time, the set­ting to work, in prac­tice, of the rela­tion­ship between the eco­nomic cri­sis and the polit­i­cal exit from the cri­sis. I do not want to claim that every­thing holds together. But at a time when the “organic” has become a bad word, to lay claim to the organic nature of a course of study might be use­ful. Not in order to go against the cur­rent but to demon­strate that, in addi­tion to study­ing, one can also under­stand.26

What I par­tic­u­larly want to high­light in this rich pas­sage is the clear state­ment that the polit­i­cal is not the state – it is not only the state, but even pre­cedes it and may – and some­times does – become con­cen­trated in it.27 This process of the orig­i­nal com­ing together of the polit­i­cal in the state is what Tronti calls, in an almost iden­ti­cal for­mu­la­tion to that used by Louis Althusser at this time, an “orig­i­nary accu­mu­la­tion of the polit­i­cal.”28 This is the period of the for­ma­tion of national states that accom­pa­nied but is irre­ducible to the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. So, while it is clear from the ori­gins of mod­ern pol­i­tics that pol­i­tics and the state were thrown together vio­lently in an orig­i­nary accu­mu­la­tion of the polit­i­cal, in the course of the late nine­teenth and early twen­ti­eth cen­turies we encoun­ter the bour­geois fear of the break­ing apart of this unity, when the state loses the monopoly on the polit­i­cal – either to the work­ing class and its orga­ni­za­tions (even the reformist ones such as trade unions), to large cor­po­ra­tions, to inter­na­tional bod­ies, or even to mar­kets.29 Carl Schmitt’s sen­si­tiv­ity to the grad­ual ero­sion of sov­er­eign author­ity and the ever-increas­ing threat of potes­tas indi­recta makes him a priv­i­leged inter­locu­tor for Tronti, for while the dis­cus­sion of the polit­i­cal is one con­cern­ing the “com­plex path of the some­times con­tra­dic­tory rela­tion­ship between the polit­i­cal and the state,” Tronti is look­ing to this rela­tion­ship of the polit­i­cal to the state so as to take stock, “in Marx­ist and Lenin­ist terms, of the pos­si­bil­ity, the prob­a­bil­ity of an orig­i­nal way to power.”30


So, have we answered our ques­tion? Why did Tronti ded­i­cate so much time in the 1970s to the study of the bour­geois state over the longue durée and con­cern him­self with the trans­for­ma­tions of the polit­i­cal over the same period? It is because he con­tended that it was only a detailed study of the bour­geois state since its ori­gins in the 16th cen­tury, which marks the start of an epoch within which we con­tinue to oper­ate, and of the – fre­quently con­tra­dic­tory – rela­tions between the polit­i­cal and the state over this period, that could provide the work­ers’ move­ment with suf­fi­ciently sophis­ti­cated ana­lyt­i­cal and prac­ti­cal tools to begin to grasp the mech­a­nisms for the appro­pri­a­tion and the trans­for­ma­tion of the state. The 1930s sig­nalled a reprise of the polit­i­cal after a cen­tury in which it had, for much of the time, been sub­or­di­nated to the eco­nomic; this came together with a return of the “grande sto­ria” of the state – the con­junc­ture again of “polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing of the class strug­gles” through the “polit­i­cal con­trol” over the social, and the “new polit­i­cal man­age­ment of a new eco­nomic cycle;”31 to study this reprise of the ori­gins of bour­geois power, with all the nov­el­ties that inter­vened in the mean­time, could provide the work­ing class with ana­lyt­i­cal and prac­ti­cal tools for the trans­for­ma­tion of the state, so that it could truly “count polit­i­cally.”

I do not believe that we are at the end of the his­tory of the state. The polit­i­cal, the new polit­i­cal sub­jec­tiv­ity strikes at it, trans­forms it, it does not smash it, it does not break it. As we run we will once again feel the bite of the state. We may as well grasp the reins and attempt to tame it.32

What then of today? Today, after the end of the long twen­ti­eth cen­tury of the Euro­pean work­ers’ move­ment, when once again the state is assailed by numer­ous, even more pow­er­ful potes­tas indi­rec­tae; when the sub­jec­tiv­ity of the state seems ever more closely aligned with that of inter­na­tional cap­i­tal, what can Tronti’s work on the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal still teach us? It con­tin­ues to con­firm that this auton­omy is indeed “a fact of cap­i­tal” and that with­out a work­ers’ move­ment capa­ble of appro­pri­at­ing those instru­ments of the state for itself, the polit­i­cal is forced to migrate to another ter­rain, one where it may be bet­ter served; rec­og­niz­ing, at the same time, that by so doing, it will have left an instru­ment of ines­timable power for the sole use of those whose inter­ests are the repro­duc­tion of cap­i­tal and exploita­tion. What Tronti allows us to think is the dif­fer­ent and chang­ing artic­u­la­tions of the polit­i­cal, of how it can inter­sect with and be pulled from the state; how it can serve to re-estab­lish order – its func­tion of sta­bi­liza­tion within cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis – as well as the poten­tial for it to be appro­pri­ated to recon­fig­ure the repro­duc­tive mech­a­nisms for the pur­poses of other sub­jec­tiv­i­ties and inter­ests, antag­o­nis­tic to those of cap­i­tal; but always, within cap­i­tal, it is the qual­ity of its auton­omy that will deter­mine its func­tion and effec­tive­ness in inter­ven­ing in the process of repro­duc­tion. When that auton­omy dimin­ishes, or is too clearly sub­or­di­nated to speci­fic inter­ests, its effec­tive­ness is eroded – think of the Great Reces­sion, of the way that the state has been sub­or­di­nated not to inter­na­tional cap­i­tal in gen­eral, but to finance cap­i­tal, erod­ing both con­sump­tion as well as pro­duc­tive invest­ment, rerout­ing cheap mon­e­tary flows into share buy-backs stok­ing the stock mar­ket and real estate bub­bles while exac­er­bat­ing geopo­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic insta­bil­i­ties, while evac­u­at­ing the state of the means to serve fur­ther rounds of repro­duc­tion and sta­bi­liza­tion, leav­ing cap­i­tal open to its always threat­en­ing cri­sis and with­out its prin­ci­ple of order.

The posi­tion Tronti leaves us in is per­haps an unset­tling one; but he leaves us with a great lucid­ity about our con­di­tion and the ana­lyt­i­cal tools to begin to think pos­si­ble new artic­u­la­tions of the polit­i­cal and – per­haps – even­tu­ally to avail our­selves of them.

I would like to thank Gior­gio Cesar­ale and Alberto Toscano for their care­ful read­ing and per­cep­tive com­ments to the intro­duc­tion and trans­la­tion. Unfor­tu­nately, I have not been able to resolve all the issues that they have raised.


  1. “Polit­ica e Potere” (1978), in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, ed. Mario Tronti et al.(Bologna: Cap­pelli Edi­tore, 1980), 306-7. 

  2. Arguably this logic was also present in the response to the most recent cap­i­tal­ist cri­sis, and that raises impor­tant issues con­cern­ing the con­se­quences not only work­ers but for cap­i­tal of the mas­sive indebt­ed­ness of the state fol­low­ing its role in the recent round of sta­bi­liza­tion. We shall return to this in the con­clu­sion. 

  3. V. I. Lenin, “Kom­mu­nis­mus” in Col­lected Works, vol. 31 (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers Moscow, 1966), 166 

  4. Con­tain­ing a chap­ter of almost 140 pages on Hobbes and Cromwell by Tronti. 

  5. Aside from the infa­mous text of a sem­i­nar, Sull’Autonomia del Politico (1977, but which took place in early Decem­ber 1972 – the vol­ume also con­tains another sem­i­nar, “Le Due Tran­sizioni,” 1976), many of these texts can be found in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere (1980). 

  6. Take for instance the “Poscritto di Prob­lemi” to the 1971 edi­tion of Operai e Cap­i­tale (Turin: Ein­audi, 1971); and “Lo Stato del Cap­i­tal­ismo Orga­niz­zato” in Stato e Cap­i­tal­ismo negli Anni Trenta (Rome: Edi­tori Riu­nitu, 1979). 

  7. This con­trasts with many other read­ings of the 1930s, which see it as the end of the bour­geois (under­stood as lib­eral) state; and it does so largely because Tronti views the his­tory of the bour­geois state as one that does not emerge as an almost nat­u­ral con­se­quence of the growth of cap­i­tal­ism – break­ing with pre­vi­ous modes of gov­er­nance under­stood as fet­ters on the growth of the pro­duc­tive forces (e.g. feu­dal or abso­lutist states) – but is in some sense the mid­wife of cap­i­tal­ism. That is to say, the 19th cen­tury Man­ches­ter-model of cap­i­tal­ism that formed the basis for much of Marx’s work, in which the state was sub­or­di­nated to mar­kets and the polit­i­cal to the eco­nomic, this was in some sense an anom­aly in the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ism. In the 1930s, on the other hand, Tronti argues that we have a return to “the ori­gins of mod­ern bour­geois power – [where] unity and con­cen­tra­tion, sov­er­eignty and vio­lence, the machine and the prince – are once again deci­sive” (“Polit­ica e Potere” [1978] in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere (1980), 295-6). This shall be dis­cussed more fully in con­clu­sion to this brief intro­duc­tion. 

  8. For this rea­son, I will range across writ­ings through­out the 1970s, the years in which Tronti’s reflec­tions on the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal were most intense. 

  9. For instance, the way the trade union strug­gles could serve as con­duits of infor­ma­tion for cap­i­tal to under­stand work­place con­di­tions; how those strug­gles could be used to mod­ern­ize the tech­nol­ogy of pro­duc­tion, encour­ag­ing the intro­duc­tion of new tech­nolo­gies either to break worker resis­tance or even as a tool for indus­trial com­pe­ti­tion, result­ing in firms unable to mod­ern­ize going bust and thereby enabling the spread of the most advanced tech­nolo­gies through­out a sec­tor; the way dis­in­vest­ment in sec­tors can free up labor for dif­fer­ent indus­trial strate­gies (e.g. the attack on min­ers in the UK in the 1980s, dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion across many advanced economies, etc.). For a use­ful dis­cus­sion of the eco­nomic con­text, see Siro Lom­bar­dini, “Crisi Eco­nom­ica e Pro­cessi di Ricon­ver­sione,” 31-41, and the chap­ter by Ser­gio Gar­avini on the role of trade unions in the restruc­tur­ing, 240-46, in Ricon­ver­sione e Con­trollo Demo­c­ra­tico, ed. Anto­nio Mereu (Bari: De Donato, 1977).  

  10. This for­mu­la­tion is, per­haps, too instru­men­tal­ist; it is quite clear that, for Tronti, nei­ther the state nor cap­i­tal are sin­gu­lar, homo­ge­neous ele­ments that can be unprob­lem­at­i­cally set to work for speci­fic ends.  

  11. See, for instance, Mario Tronti, Sull’Autonomia del Politico (Milan, Fel­trinelli, 1977), 34-5. How­ever, as Tronti makes clear in “Le Due Tran­sizioni”  (1976), in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, he thinks through extremes: “I very much believe, more­over, in inquiry that goes in phases, even in short epochs, in which each time one places the accent vio­lently on one ele­ment that then forces you to bend the ques­tion the other way, because I do not believe it is pos­si­ble to recom­pose a sys­tem­atic pic­ture from the the­o­ret­i­cal stand­point given the type of sit­u­a­tion we have before us (even from the class per­spec­tive), which is an era of move­ment in an epoch of tran­si­tion.” In a recent col­lec­tion of arti­cles, Tronti has returned to this idea in a more apo­d­ic­tic for­mu­la­tion: “It is well known: I like to think from extremes. To think from extremes is the only way to pro­duce the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies. Strong thought in a hard real­ity. The plane of action is quite another thing. The error is in con­se­quence to act from extremes,” Mario Tronti, “Polit­ica e Cul­tura,” in Non si può Accettare, ed. P. Serra (Rome: Ediesse, 2009), 64. 

  12. Mario Tronti, “Le Due Soci­età Politiche” (1977), in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, 287. The con­trast Tronti makes between “par­tic­i­pat­ing” and “count­ing” here, is an inter­est­ing one that would deserve more exten­sive treat­ment. The cru­cial point being – how­ever – that par­tic­i­pa­tion in polit­i­cal life (through being able to vote, for instance) is not itself a guar­an­tee of being able to influ­ence polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing. What Tronti is inter­ested in, is find­ing ways to change the state, renew the state in such a way that it is open to its basis in soci­ety. If one takes lib­eral democ­racy, there is a chasm between the “moment of demo­c­ra­tic artic­u­la­tion at the base and the moment of deci­sion at the top”; it is this chasm, or “miss­ing links” that needs to be over­come in a “pro­posal for a new polit­i­cal sys­tem” (ibid.). 

  13. Mario Tronti, “Polit­ica e Potere” (1978), in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, 310. 

  14. V. I. Lenin, The New Eco­nomic Pol­icy and the Tasks of the Polit­i­cal Edu­ca­tion Depart­ments,” in Col­lected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Pro­gress Pub­lish­ers, 1973), 66. 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. L’Autonomia del Politico: Relazione Intro­dut­tiva” (1972) in Mario Tronti, L’Autonomia del Poltitico (Milan, Fel­trinelli, 1977, 19. 

  17. Although Tronti in many ways under­stood what he was doing in these terms. As he writes in 1978: “It is prob­a­ble that Ital­ian Marx­ism will be led by cir­cum­stances to assume an ardu­ous his­toric task, that of inter­na­tional trail­blazer [bat­tistrada], more or less close to the mean­ing of Lenin­ism in the 1920s,” Mario Tronti in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, 294. 

  18. “L’Autonomia del Politico: Relazione Intro­dut­tiva” in Mario Tronti, L’Autonomia del Politico (Milan: Fel­trinelli, 1977), 17. 

  19. Sara Far­ris, “Althusser and Tronti: the Pri­macy of Pol­i­tics Ver­sus the Auton­omy of the Polit­i­cal” in Encoun­ter­ing Althusser, ed. Katja Diefen­bach et al. (Lon­don: Blooms­bury, 2013), 192. Much of my dis­cus­sion of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal is writ­ten in crit­i­cal (but appre­cia­tive) rela­tion to the inter­pre­ta­tion of Tronti pro­vided by Far­ris, which I take to clearly and thought­fully express a wide­spread under­stand­ing of this period of Tronti’s oeu­vre – one that I take to be flawed. 

  20. Mario Tronti, “Le Due Tran­sizioni” (1976), in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, 81, 82-3. 

  21. Anto­nio Negri, “Key­nes and the Cap­i­tal­ist The­ory of the State” in Labor of Diony­sus (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 1994). 

  22. “What the State can­not do, pol­i­tics or rather the polit­i­cal must do; it finds itself in the more cor­rect sit­u­a­tion to medi­ate its choice of actions with the state of its time and its peo­ple,” Mario Tronti, Hegel Politico (Rome: Isti­tuto dell’Enciclopedia Ital­iana, 1975), 42. 

  23. This should not be seen in any way as a renounc­ing of Marx – quite the oppo­site; but it is sim­ply to acknowl­edge that “between the eco­nomic and the polit­i­cal there has not always existed the same rela­tion but there is a rela­tion that changes,” Mario Tronti, “Crit­ica della Polit­ica, Oggi” (1977), in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, 276. 

  24. Mario Tronti, “Le Due Soci­età Politiche” (1977), in Soggetti, Crisi Potere, 288. 

  25. The answer that Tronti pro­vides is not uni­ver­sal­iz­able. There were speci­fic con­di­tions in Italy that made this solu­tion pecu­liarly appro­pri­ate to con­di­tions in the penin­sula at the time: 1) a weak cen­tral state lack­ing an effec­tive, mod­ern rul­ing class; 2) a pow­er­ful work­ers’ move­ment with deep routes across the national ter­ri­tory. The ter­rain of the polit­i­cal there­fore pos­sessed a ready-made medi­a­tor that could use its level of auton­omy to appro­pri­ate the levers of social repro­duc­tion: “Pol­i­tics is not only the state but also the party; and not only the party but the move­ment; and not only the move­ment … We must take up this need for pol­i­tics that rises from the social,” Mario Tronti, “Polit­ica e Potere” (1978), in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, 309). 

  26. Ibid., 296. 

  27. Which is why any sim­ple reduc­tion of the auton­omy of the polit­i­cal to the auton­omy (rel­a­tive or oth­er­wise) of the state, is a mis­take. The influ­ence of Carl Schmitt is evi­dent here: “The con­cept of the state pre­sup­poses that of the polit­i­cal,” Carl Schmitt, The Con­cept of the Polit­i­cal (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 2007), 19. 

  28. Mario Tronti, “Polit­ica e Potere” (1978), in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, 306. A year before, in 1977, Althusser used the term “prim­i­tive polit­i­cal accu­mu­la­tion” but explic­itly relates it to Marx’s notion of “orig­i­nal” accu­mu­la­tion – often trans­lated as “prim­i­tive” accu­mu­la­tion, Louis Althusser, “The Soli­tude of Machi­avelli” in Machi­avelli and Us (Lon­don: Verso Books, 2011), 125. It is highly unlikely that Tronti knew that Althusser had used this expres­sion the year before he did, since Althusser did so in a lec­ture at the Asso­ci­a­tion Franḉais de Sci­ence Poli­tique in Paris in 1977. It is, if any­thing, a sign (a fur­ther sign?) that in many ways Althusser’s reflec­tions and those of Tronti, at this time, were revolv­ing around sim­i­lar themes and prob­lems and, arguably, reach­ing anal­o­gous con­clu­sions. See Sarah Far­ris, “Althusser and Tronti: the Pri­macy of Pol­i­tics Ver­sus the Auton­omy of the Polit­i­cal,” for a some­what dif­fer­ent account from my own, admit­tedly less thor­oughly devel­oped one – at least as con­cerns Althusser). 

  29. We can think again of the work of Carl Schmitt, who at var­i­ous moments expresses a fear of all of these forms of potes­tas indi­rec­tae. We also need to note the cen­tral role of eco­nomic and geopo­lit­i­cal crises that played a sub­stan­tial role in the loss of the power states: the World Wars, rev­o­lu­tions, the Great Crash, mass pol­i­tics; to which we can add the for­ma­tion of the large giant Ger­man Konz­ern, US cor­po­ra­tions, inter­na­tional bod­ies from the treaties of Ver­sailles, Yalta, to the Bret­ton Woods insti­tu­tions, and so on. The twen­ti­eth cen­tury saw both the enor­mous expan­sion of polit­i­cal power but also its embod­i­ment in very dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tional – and non – forms. 

  30. Mario Tronti, “Polit­ica e Potere” (1978) in Soggetti, Crisi, Potere, 307. 

  31. Ibid., 295. 

  32. Ibid., 312. 

Author of the article

is a member of the editorial board of the journal Historical Materialism and lectures at Queen Mary University of London.